Film Review - The Prodigal Son / by Chris Tang

Seeing as I got a comment on my introductory post asking for more martial arts movies, I thought I'd revisit the 1981 Hong Kong classic The Prodigal Son, starring Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-Ying, Sammo Hung and Frankie Chan.

Now, a lot of the old kung fu films of the seventies and early eighties tended to follow a certain formula; usually along the lines of:

The main protagonist of the story battles a foe, for some reason or another; perhaps the hero's father, brother, master, clan or village was attacked and defeated, and now the main protagonist must have his revenge, but first must endure great hardship or torturous training in order to overcome the evil forces/bad guy/rival that had wronged our hero in the first confrontation.

Of course, there are other plots available, but this one, or a variation upon this one is quite common.

Next, a kung fu master may appear in the story, perhaps helping the hero, and saving him from certain death at the hands of his enemy, ends up being the one to train him up in order to ready him for the final battle.

I hadn't seen this film in about seven years, and had forgotten much of it, so was looking forward to watching it again. Upon watching the prodigal son, it was no surprise to find out that this film also followed certain elements of that classic formula.

This is no bad thing of course. Kung fu cinema's back catalogue is littered with hundreds of movies with very similar plots to this, but the plot ultimately is pretty unimportant; it's the intricately choreographed fight scenes and the masterful skills displayed, be it in armed or unarmed combat, that kung fu fans are waiting to see.

In the case of The Prodigal Son, the main character, Leung Chang (Yuen Biao) is the son of a rich man, and he is under the impression that he is the best fighter in Fut Shan. What he is unaware of, is the fact that his father, worried that some harm may come to his beloved son, is paying off his opponents; bribing them to lose. From all of these "victories", Leung Chang earns the name the street brawler, while behind his back, they call him the prodigal son.

Leung Chang soon knows the truth, after a fracas involving himself, and real kung fu master Leung Yee-Tai (Lam Ching-Ying), a performer and female impersonator in a travelling opera troupe. So Leung Chang vows to get Leung Yee-Tai to teach him kung fu. However, Yee-Tai does not want him as his student, and refuses to teach him anything; that is, until a tragic event occurs, and they have to retreat to Yee-Tai's home, and thus begins Leung Chang's training.

Enter Sammo Hung's character Wong Wah-Bo, who also helps with the training. Add another plot point that follows the classic formula, all culminating in a final fight displaying some awesome Wing Chun choreography between Yuen Biao and Frankie Chan.

All in all, this film deserves it's classic status. While I would have preferred some longer fight scenes (the final battle lasts about seven minutes), the quality of the choreography and performances are more than enough to keep viewers interested. For me, even the comedic parts of the movie made me laugh out loud in places; I generally find that Chinese comedy doesn't always translate so well for western audiences, although there are exceptions.

Lam Ching-Ying gives excellent performances both as female impersonator and when out of his opera costume as a man. All of the main actors are great in their respective roles, with Sammo almost stealing the show with some of his antics; his calligraphy kung fu scene is brilliant!

Interestingly, according to the DVD extras, and I didn't know this before, Leung Yee-Tai and Leung Chang were actual figures in Wing Chun kung fu. Wing Chun was passed down to a select few students including Leung Yee-Tai, who was then apparently taught a pole style by Shaolin monestary escapee Abbot Chi Shin. Yee-Tai introduced the pole form to Wing Chun and then taught a doctor from Fatshan called Leung Jan. Leung Jan taught Chan Wah Shun, who in turn, passed it onto Yip Man, who we all know now as the master who taught Wing Chun to Bruce Lee.

Anyway, this is an excellent kung fu film, that anyone should watch! So go and watch it!!

The Prodigal Son [DVD]
Starring Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, Ching-Ying Lam, Frankie Chan